The American Academy in Rome taps the McClures of Lafayette as Fellows for a year of study in Rome. ultoday.com talked to them about their architectural theories based on Cajun and South Louisiana culture, about their students, and why they left the large architectural design centers to locate in Lafayette.

In the late 1800's a small cadre of America's wealthiest philanthropists established The American Academy in Rome. Those founders included J.P. Morgan, William Kissam Vanderbilt, Henry Clay Frick, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Andrew Carnegie. In 1896, the new Academy awarded a single fellowship to an American archaeologist to study in The Eternal City. 

The next year, in 1897, the fellowships were expanded to include four scholars, including a lone, promising architect-- one John Russell Pope. Pope went on to become the pre-eminent American architect of his day, designing the Jefferson Memorial, the National Archives, the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, and many other icons of American architectural history.

Since that time, a Who's Who of American architecture have followed in Pope's footsteps, and the Rome Prize has afforded some of America's most illustrious designers and thinkers in art, architecture, history & letters the priceless opportunity to explore, study, and converse in the historical treasure that is Rome.

And now two Lafayette residents have won the Rome Prize, and will be housed atop the Gianicolo-- the Janiculum of old Rome, the highest of the Seven Hills-- where they will live, dine and study with other Fellows, some of the brightest and best of American scholarship. Those winners are Michael McClure, Associate Professor in the UL School of Architecture, and his wife, Ursula Emery McClure, Associate Professor in the LSU School of Architecture.  Accompanying them will be their daughter and research assistant, 5 year-old Ada.

ultoday.com recently talked with them about their work, and the prestigious honor they have received.

Where did you guys grow up?

Ursula: I grew up all over, my father is an academic, now a Medievalist at Notre Dame. I've lived the longest in New York-- and now, in Louisiana-- but I also lived in South Carolina & Texas for a while.

Michael: I grew up in Pryor OK, outside of Tulsa in the Ozark foothills, near the Missouri border.

We were both undergraduates at Washington University in St. Louis, although we really didn't know each other there. Then we both went to Columbia for our Master's, and that's where we met and eventually married.

You have won one of the most prestigious prizes in American architecture. Would it be safe to say that this is more than a "résumé builder"?

Ursula: The effect of the fellowship is twofold. It says you have accomplished something. But historically, it has also been a very good predictor for saying that you're going to accomplish even more. In effect, the Academy is saying, "If we give you this opportunity, we think you're going to go even further."

Michael: We were already building our portfolio and our reputation. But since the press release came out about the Rome Prize, every major architect and architecture professor anywhere in the US knows about our work. 

How does this affect your reputation?

Michael: Actually, the biggest thing we want is for people to be proud of our Universities, so that they know what's going on here. We are in a regional culture here in South Louisiana, but the culture is also known internationally for the things that we are doing. I know that whenever I travel, I'm an ambassador for what this area has to offer.

Your work straddles the Basin. How did you end up living in Lafayette?

Ursula: We lived in Baton Rouge for about 6 years, and we liked that, too. Both UL and LSU are supportive of our work, but we had to make a decision. We had been spending time in Lafayette. We had a house we were working on here, Mike would stay in a trailer we kept there, and we would come in for the festivals, and on the weekends.

Because of the geography of Lafayette, it's easier here to live near both the University and the Downtown. And when we found a house that hadn't been restored, one that was within walking distance from UL-- Michael said he had to be able to see the school-- that pretty much settled it. Once we decided to make a commitment, Lafayette made more sense.

Your application for the Rome Prize deals with "terra viscus". What is that?

Terra viscus, it's a Latin term for soft soil. All buildings in South Louisiana are built on soft soil, but we were thinking about the changing conditions here, the shifting foundations, so it's more than just the soil.

The terms everyone likes to talk about-- we use the wrong terms here, we talk about wet areas, and dry areas. But really, it's always both. There's really no bedrock here.

Architecturally, structurally, terra viscus has to do with foundations, it's how you build down here. But it's a metaphor for more than building-- we call it an "analytical metaphor"-- it's a term that reflects the cultures here. Nothing is constant, nothing is consistent. Cajuns live in swamps and fish from pirogues; Cajuns build fiber-optic networks and design hi tech robots. The Cajuns invented so much of the shipping technologies and oil technologies used all over the world. We talk to our students about it, there are so many Mom & Pop shipbuilders in South Louisiana whose boats are bought by businesses all over the country.

This place is unique... it wants to be modern, but it doesn't. People love innovation here, but they love their heritage, too. There is something quite valuable where heritage & culture are so tightly intertwined.

People here in South Louisiana take pride in where they're from. The people here, are from here. Other places, people come in from all over, they don't know the history, they don't know the traditions.

People from outside tend to think of South Louisiana as one culture, but I-10 cuts across 3 distinct cultures-- Acadiana with the Cajun Culture, Baton Rouge and the Florida Parishes with the Old South culture, and New Orleans which is neither.

That's exactly what we're talking about, the differences, the contradictions.

This prize opens up any door for you anywhere. Do you think you will come back?

Why wouldn't we? The situation here was obviously good enough for us to win this prize, so why not come back? Other places have other attributes. But this is home, this is our work.

We lived in New York, we were high-powered New York architects. But we decided to come to Louisiana. For all of our friends and colleagues who questioned our decision, who couldn't understand why we came here, this makes our point better than anything we could have told them.

Ursula, you took the job at LSU, then UL hired Michael. Why, of all the architecture schools out there, did you pick schools in Louisiana?

What makes an architecture school famous, is not really related to what it's doing... recognition usually has to do with budgets, the buildings you work in, the reputations of your faculty. The kids we have at UL and LSU are as good as any students, anywhere. So what we saw here was the chance to have an effect on students' careers, on their approach to architecture. 

We see the same things at UL and at LSU. Our kids compete with the best, they get into Harvard, they go to Yale, they work in the best firms in the country.

Or frequently, they just stay here. Look around. We have Steve Oubre here in Lafayette, Trey Trahan in Baton Rouge, Mathes/Brierre and EDR [Eskew Dumez Ripple] in New Orleans. Our schools have produced some of the best architects anywhere.

Kids all over the country leave to go off to the big city. But the difference here is, our kids want to come back home. This place has its own character, its own culture. There's a demographic we came across in the New York Times recently, about people who stay near where they grew up. It turns out that Thibodaux is the most rooted city, in the most rooted state, in the entire US. People here love their families, they love their communities, and they love their culture.

Mike: We're rooted here. I had two students a few years ago, they knew each other well, but at first I didn't realize just how well. Turns out, they went to pre-K together, then they went through grade school and high school together, and then they studied architecture at UL together. Then one went to NY, the other went to Philly. Now they're both back in school together, working on Master's degrees at Harvard. From Guchereaux's Day Care, all the way to Harvard. That's what we love about our students, our kids go everywhere.

What does the Rome Prize mean to the two of you?

We don't really know what it means at this point. We've worked really hard, just so we could have the opportunity to go. We're very content with where we are now, in our professional and teaching careers, so we'll just go over and see what happens. We've reached one of our career goals, winning the Prize. Actually getting to live and study in Rome is icing.

Who are the architects who have influenced you the most?

Whenever we speak to our students, we talk about three influences who have affected us, not necessarily their work, but rather, their approach to the practice of architecture. Fay Jones-- a good friend of Dean Gordon Brooks's here are UL, also a Rome Prize winner, and an AIA Gold Medalist-- stays in the Ozarks, and we really like that. He could have gone anywhere, but he worked with the local landscape and culture, he worked to perfect what he was doing there. We really like that idea, instead of chasing after different dreams, you stay where you are and really dig into the interplay of design and culture.

We also admire Charles & Ray Eames, who are mostly designers, but who trained as architects. They're a married couple who raised a family while they were building their practice. Their design isn't elitist, it doesn't target the rich. They produce well-designed, affordable products for regular people. They also made films for kids, films about math, about trains, all sorts of things.

And the last one is Steven Holl. We respect him because he writes about his own work. He writes well, and he designs well.

So when people ask us about our visual inspirations, we like a variety of aesthetic approaches. But the people who influence how we approach what we do-- someone who stays grounded in his own culture; a couple with a family; someone who is his own worst critic and who writes about his own work-- those are the people we emulate.

It seems that what binds them together is a sort of humility, a shared humanity.

Well, certainly there is a lot of talk today about "starchitects", architects with great star power. But so much of that is based on reputation, not necessarily on their current work. Some of them are really good designers, but still, maybe only a third of their work is truly great. But everything they do draws rave reviews.

For us, it's more about being relevant to our community, to our clients... granted, we both studied at very selective schools, but we were both on scholarship at those schools. So we try to stay grounded.

How does that approach inform your design?

Again, we're interested in relevance. We're not willing to give up modernism for historicism, nor vice versa; we're not willing to trade art for pragmatics;... it's not form or function, it's both.

Here's the example of relevance Ursula and I used at a lecture recently. We spoke at a symposium on alternative practice... we don't think we're alternative. We're as alternative as U2 was when they launched the "War" album. They weren't trying to be alternative, they were just a 4-piece band trying to play good, fundamentally sound rock music. Now they're considered a classic. But they were just trying to do rock, to do what was relevant for them... our work may be unique, but our intention is simply to make our work as relevant as we can.

Many architects are exclusive, and we don't want to go there. I think we have a lot of good architecture here... you have the University Art Museum, a gorgeous modern building. And then you have the traditional charm of River Ranch... I think there's something in between.

What do you think is the most aesthetic piece of architecture in town?

Any of the shotgun houses in the Freetown/P'orico Neighborhoods. They're not big or fancy, but they can be really lovely.

You're not Cajuns, but you've obviously embraced some aspects of the culture here.

We love living here, but we don't want to try to be Cajuns. Our daughter amazes us all the time with what she picks up from the local culture, but she was born & raised here.

So she's a Cajun?

Culturally, yes, it's the only place she's ever known.

Cajuns have ingenuity, and they have practicality. Not only do they find a way to survive, but to do it with style. They didn't just harvest the food here, they make meals that are nutritious, and delicious. Look at the accordions and the other instruments... the instruments don't just make music, they're beautiful to look at.

Michael, tell us about teaching here at UL.

I love teaching here. I've taught at some very prestigious private schools, but the kids at UL generally work harder, and they're still willing to learn.

They're curious, they really want to figure it out.